What Don’t You Know About the Trump/Russia Connection?
Bill Moyers talks to Steven Harper, author of our new interactive feature, about what he's learned researching the connections between Trump, his team and Russia going back nearly four decades.
If you’re having trouble finding your way through the blizzard of facts, leaks, rumors and lies howling around the Trump/Russia connection, we have just the guide for you.
Steven Harper is a trained and tenacious tiger for the truth. An outstanding career litigator, he’s also an accomplished writer. His book Crossing Hoffa told the compelling story of his father’s bitter feud with Jimmy Hoffa — he was twice targeted by hit squads. Harper’s also the author of Straddling Worlds, a biography of his old college professor, diplomatic historian Richard Leopold; The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in Crisis and a roman à clef about life in a “fictional” big law firm. He’s a fellow of the College of American Trial Lawyers and teaches at the Northwestern University School of Law.
Steve and I connected early this year (we’d never met) after he mentioned to a mutual friend that he wanted to dig into the Trump/Russian Connection — the bizarre and entangled ties of Trump’s empire to the murky underworld of Russian billionaires, state officials, hackers and spies.
We struck up a relationship and Steve started digging, using a timeline, the tool he had honed in years of preparing courtroom cases, to create a chronological “map” of events that now threaten to bring down the Trump presidency.
Take a look and you’ll see that a lot has happened.
Today, we are launching a new version of the Trump/Russia Timeline, one that we think is the most comprehensive available online, and one a former assistant Watergate prosecutor says is “the most enlightening… and best source” for tracing the Trump/Russia connection.
With more than 450 separate events, our redesigned timeline gives readers the chance to see everything we know so far about the Trump Russia story, and provides the ability to drill down by specific names to view each player’s personal connections.
Late last week, I talked with Harper about why he embarked on this project, what he’s learned and what we should pay attention to in the Trump Russia investigation.
Bill Moyers: You created this timeline back in February. I think it’s been like Jack and the beanstalk; it just keeps growing. And you’ve been working on it for almost six months, and I have to say, it’s quite an impressive project. But you had to come out of retirement to do it after a long and successful career as a litigator. Why? What was it? It was your idea — you came up with it and you committed with passion to it. Why?
Steven Harper: Fear. I started writing about Donald Trump and what he might do to the rule of law back in early June 2016 when he had his first outburst against the so-called Mexican judge, born in Indiana, who was presiding over his [Trump University] case. And I continued writing about concerns as it related to the rule of law and Trump from my professional vantage point as a litigator of over 30 years. What worried me as I moved into early 2017 is that it just seemed to me that the Trump-Russia issue wasn’t getting as much headline attention as I feared that it might deserve.
So I started this really as a part of a post that I did for your site that just tried to focus people on paying attention to the Trump-Russia story, because of course none of us knew really where it would lead and we still don’t know where it’s going to lead. But as you learn more and more, it becomes — at least to me — more and more troubling. So I began the thing and continued it as an effort to try to synthesize the most important events relating to Trump and Russia, just focus like a laser on that issue — because I do believe it’s central to the survival of democracy in America, and I still think it goes to the core question of Trump’s legitimacy as president.
Moyers: You used the word fear. What is there, not in just the Russian connection, but what is there about Trump that makes you fear for the, quote, “rule of law”?
Harper: Well, there’s been a steady erosion — I’ve called it a dangerous normalization of Donald Trump — in terms of his actions. We’ve now gotten ourselves to the point — and it was well underway during the campaign season and it’s continued in spades since then — of no longer asking whether Trump is going to do something outrageous that in any prior time that I’ve been living, over 60 years, people would say, “Wait a minute, what’s going on here?” We’ve now gone from asking whether to allow him to normalize himself and desensitize us, to just asking when it will happen again. And if you couple it with the fundamental lack of transparency with respect to his financial affairs, the sort of ongoing bromance that he still maintains with Vladimir Putin, all of this stuff is just very troubling in terms of what it means for not just America today, but for the America of my children and my grandchildren. Whatever he’s doing now could matter a lot more to them.
Moyers: What is unique about the Russian connection, potentially, that is different from other abnormal deviations that concern you? What is it that calls you to look at this story as opposed to his business empire or his campaign?
Harper: I think it does go to the question of the fundamental legitimacy of the man who sits in the Oval Office. If you’re worried at all about whether your vote matters as an American, then something like Russian interference with a presidential election with a specific aim to determine the outcome, and with a specific aim to determine the outcome in favor of someone who already has some connections [to Russia] of some kind, full story to be determined, that ought to be upsetting to anyone who thinks that what we do in America is vote for leaders who are then responsible to and responsive to us as our elected officials.
Russia is in my view the big deal in American political history for the last 200 years. This is it.
Harper: Because if we no longer have the sanctity of the vote because a foreign power can interfere in ways — whether it’s through a fake news bombardment of the populace through bots or whether it’s changing electoral totals on machines — the effect is just as insidious, it’s just as dramatic and it’s just as bad. And the question is: Are Americans going to vote for their candidates based on [false] information — because ultimately, that’s what democracy requires, an informed electorate, and are we going to allow that to disappear? Because if we do, then what’s left?
Moyers: So there’s no doubt in your mind that the Russian government tried to influence American public opinion in favor of Trump over Clinton?
Harper: Correct. Yes, I stand with all of the US intelligence agencies on that one.
Moyers: Well, both had motives, obviously, Trump to win the election, Putin to punish Clinton for criticizing a previous Russian election as corrupt, as you know, and for opposing his foreign policy toward Ukraine and Eastern Europe. Was there something else? You mention, if I may be journalistic for a moment and ask you — we journalists follow the money trail. Do you think there’s a money trail here that led to what happened last fall?
Harper: To me, that’s an evolving theme of this story. It also, at least to me, becomes increasingly clear that there is. And I think there are a number of different themes that converge, but follow the money is I think the right way to view much of what Trump says and does. And how you follow the money, where the money leads and who gets what and who gains what out of that is I think going to turn out to be a central part of this story.
Time will tell ultimately, but I have my own suspicions about it for sure. Trial lawyers will tell you — which is the kind of law I practiced — there are two types of evidence. There’s direct evidence and there’s also circumstantial evidence. And the circumstantial evidence with respect to the flow of Russian money, the desire of Russians in the ’90s and thereafter to launder money out of the country and into various Western countries, particularly through the expedient of real estate, with New York being an especially favorable place to do that — you know, I think all of these things are going to converge in a way that when you start to look at everything that’s happening through that lens, you can crystallize things.
But it’s very difficult for someone just trying to pick up the story and say, “Well, tell me what’s going on” and all you hear about is, well, today The Washington Post said that he was involved in drafting his son’s response to a meeting in June of 2016. Unfortunately, I think a lot of Americans just sort of shrug and say, “Well gee, so what?”
Moyers: What do you make of the fact that, although the Trump administration repeatedly lobbied Republicans in Congress to weaken the sanctions against Russia, the House and the Senate both passed a very strong sanctions bill with bipartisan support? And apparently reluctantly but nonetheless with finality, Trump signed it this week. Can you interpret that for us?
Harper: Yes — two things are interesting. One, the signing statement is about as close as I think you could get to apologizing to Putin for having to sign it. And two, it does seem to me that the strong bipartisan support for the bill does suggest that somewhere along the line the GOP is willing to say, “OK, that’s enough.” The problem is, I think ultimately still, that in pursuit of their other agenda items, they’re willing to, at least to this point, to let him go way too far in eroding the central norms of democracy that make America what it is.
Moyers: How have you kept from being overwhelmed by — you know, there are over 440 separate events on your timeline. How do you decide what’s the most important item/event to include?
Harper: I started with what I thought was going to be a much more modest task because the original timeline, which appeared in that post back in early February, only had about two dozen entries.
Little did I imagine that it would grow to, as you say, over 400. And the only way to keep track of it has been to be on it weekly. I have the luxury of not having to go to work every day other than work on this and it’s become a full-time job in many ways. But what better way to use my hours of retirement than trying to keep track of a story that I think will be a central story in the definition of America for a long time to come? It would be very hard to pick up the thread now, I think, and try to say, OK, well, how do I begin to get my arms around this thing? If I hadn’t been doing it all along, I probably wouldn’t even have the desire to try to start it—
Moyers: Well, let me ask you one question. If you were to bill us on an hourly basis for what you’ve done on this timeline, I’d have to have my own Russian connection to pay for it. [laughter]
Harper: I’d give you a special rate, Bill.
Moyers: So how do you decide what to include? I mean, the faucet is never turned off.
Harper: No, it never does turn off. It’s a challenging process, and I tackle this the same way I would have tackled a complex piece of litigation when I was trying cases to juries. Because ultimately what you’re trying to do is sort the relevant from the irrelevant and then figure out what the relevant facts mean.
So the first step is focus. While I’m aware of a lot of other things that are going on in Trump’s world, and occasionally write about those as well, for the purposes of this timeline I’m really trying not to get lost in the media culture of sound bites and the Trump culture of lies, diversions, deflections and distractions. And the focus for me is, all right, let me just look at this and see, does this in some way relate to the ongoing unfolding Trump/Russia story? So that’s the first cut.
And then the next cut is facts. How do I make sure that the timeline is not simply, dare I use the phrase, fake news?
And frankly for me, that’s where the trial lawyer’s training comes in. That’s why with every entry, we have embedded links that allow the reader to check me out. I encourage fact-checking. I’m delighted if someone — it doesn’t happen too often, but if someone says, “Say, I checked on this and this link doesn’t quite line up with this,” I want to know that. But I also put my sources right in there where people can look and see for themselves. So what matters ultimately are the conclusions that thoughtful readers draw from the facts, not what I tell them to believe.
The tough part of the exercise, I will tell you — and again, this is a derivative of my training as a trial lawyer — is the limited capacity — it’s pretty big but it’s limited — capacity of the human mind to retain information. There’s an analogy that one of my mentors used to use to presenting evidence to a jury. He would say it’s sort of like pouring coffee into a cup and saucer. You can keep pouring facts in and they may all be facts and they may all be proven and everything else, but if you pour in too much, eventually the coffee’s going to spill onto the saucer and the trial lawyer never knows what remains in the cup of that juror’s mind. So that’s the challenge and that’s why I think our next phase with the timeline is going to be to continue to develop themes that allow people to access separate strands more readily as well as to identify events related to particular people and they can do searches that way and so forth.
In terms of the sources that I use, every morning I start my day with The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and a number of the magazines that come out weekly. I check but try not to dwell on what the television news outlets have to say because they’re mostly summarizing and repeating things, although occasionally there’s breaking news. I try to watch most of the press conferences when they’re televised. And I pay attention to what’s happening on Twitter, including Donald Trump’s, because he has a way of revealing himself sometimes and sometimes in very important ways.
Moyers: Let me double back to the previous point you made that you want to look ahead to themes. You want to anticipate themes as they come. But have you seen at least the beginning of a theme that ties all of these 447 separate events together?
Harper: I don’t know that it’ll tie every single one of them, because despite my best efforts it could very well turn out to be that a number of them won’t fit into the larger puzzle, but [I think] there’ll be enough of them that fit into certain puzzles that all of a sudden there’s a story that makes sense here and is proven with facts — and provable with facts, I should say. I think one theme will continue to be important will be the money trail. I think another theme will be just noticing or being aware of how events throughout the summer campaign of 2016 are awfully difficult to explain as coincidences, whether you call them hacking, Trump advisers interacting with Russians, Trump’s refusal to disengage from his Putin bromance. I think all of those things are going to be of a piece.
A third theme that has become prominent since I started the original timeline is what I would call the erosion of Trump’s sequential defenses, and unfortunately, the willingness of the GOP to let him get away with it. Just to illustrate the point, you know this all started with Trump and his team assuring everybody there had been no contacts between the campaign and Russians. That was defense No. 1. Defense No. 2 was, well, if there were contacts, there was no collusion. And then that has disappeared. Defense No. 3, particularly in light of the June 9, 2016 meeting among Trump’s senior advisers and the Russians, is, look, anyone would do it; it’s oppo research. Well, that isn’t really selling very well. So defense No. 4 has become, well, the Russians didn’t provide anything that was helpful anyway, so no harm, no foul. And now we’re up to [Nos.] 5 and 6, which I would summarize as whatever happened didn’t affect the election outcome, and No. 6, the newest one, is no matter what happened, Trump is still a legitimate president. And I think that No. 6 is a big one because I think that’s very much in question based on the failure of defenses 1 through 5.
Moyers: About that meeting in the summer of 2016, what about the revelation last week that Donald Trump himself dictated his son’s statement describing the meeting? He dictated it demanding that Don Jr. include the lie in it that it was really about adoption. Seems to me the father was demanding that the son potentially perjure himself. Does that make any sense to you?
Harper: Well, very little of what happens coming out of Air Force One makes much sense to me.
But in terms of perjury, nobody’s under oath. So you’re away from the technical requirements of perjury. I actually was sort of amused when the story came out for two reasons. I mean, not amused in a funny way, but maybe bemused is a better way to put it. No. 1, if you’re a lawyer, coming at it purely from the standpoint of an attorney, you have to wonder about a client who will so disregard what’s happening around him that he’ll do something that every lawyer worth his salt would never allow to have happen, which is have direct communications with another potential witness, namely Don Jr., about what he’s going to say about an issue and an event that is clearly going to become central to the ongoing saga. That was the part that was at least as stunning to me as the substance.
And on the substance, I thought it was amusing that when asked about it, Sarah Huckabee Sanders dismissed it, saying, “Well, this is just the president weighing in”—
Moyers: Yes [laughs].
Harper: As any father would for a son. Well, we all know who carries more weight in that situation. So I find the whole thing quite remarkable.
The other remarkable thing too is that it just keeps on going. We went from statement No. 1, which didn’t sell because The New York Times was still digging and found more. He went to statement No. 2, which didn’t sell because The New York Times said, “Hey, guess what, we’ve seen the emails.” And now we’ve gone to the release of the emails and then we had a period of several days where we had a dribbling out of, well, who were the Russians that were actually in that meeting, by the way? And of course, that has exploded into an entirely new story, I think, that, again, if we follow the threads of that, it’s going to lead to some interesting places.
Moyers: How so?
Harper: William Browder’s testimony of July 26 got lost in the chaos of the Trump tweet about the transgender ban on military service, the health care debacle for the GOP in the Senate, and of course the infamous Mooch interview for The New Yorker. But in his testimony before Congress, Bill Browder put some flesh on the bones of a number of issues relating ironically enough even to Russian adoptions.
Moyers: And who is Browder?
Harper: Bill Browder was an American financier who hired a lawyer in Russia named Sergei Magnitsky, because he was concerned that there were some shenanigans happening with respect to tax payments that he’d made to Russia. And to make a long story short, Magnitsky discovered through his investigation that in fact $230 million of Browder’s money had been misdirected into the pockets of Russian officials. And Magnitsky then wound up testifying against those officials.
Shortly thereafter, he was arrested, put in prison and for almost a year subjected to physical abuse until he died in 2009 at the age of 37. What came of that ultimately was Browder’s determination not to have let Magnitsky’s death be in vain, so he made it his personal mission to try to seek justice on behalf of his former lawyer. And what resulted from all of that was something called the Magnitsky Act—
Moyers: Passed by Congress?
Harper: Correct. Signed by President Obama in December of 2012. In response, Putin — according to Browder’s testimony — was furious and made it one of his primary objectives to reverse those sanctions because — again, according to Browder — they could very well reach Putin personally because he has a lot of assets in Western countries. So the next thing that happens is, as retaliation for the Magnitsky Act, Putin imposes a ban on Americans’ adoption of Russian children.
The discussion about the Magnitsky Act and the discussion about the adoption of Russian children actually does become in the end a discussion about Russian sanctions, which of course is the ultimate irony of Trump’s crafting — if that’s what he did — of Don Jr.’s statement, because in the effort to make it seem innocuous, if you scratch just two or three inches below the surface, you’re right back in the thick of it in terms of Putin and sanctions and the Trump campaign.
Moyers: And the congressional sanctions passed by Congress, which Obama signed, as you said, were a threat to Putin’s own wealth, much of which he has outside the Russian border, right?
Harper: That’s right.
Moyers: Well, that brings me back to what journalistically is the meta-narrative that I see emerging, from your work actually, which is that — you may have read the very powerful and well-detailed piece in The New Republic recently by the investigative reporter Craig Unger about how the use of Trump Tower and other luxury high rises to launder dirty money ran into an international syndicate and, as he says, “propelled a failed real estate developer into the White House.”
So my meta-narrative, Steve, would be suggestively — not convincingly, but suggestively this: that the Trump empire would have gone under 15 to 20 years ago if rich Russians hadn’t bought his apartments here in New York. Donald Trump Jr. is on the record as saying the money poured in around that time from Russia. And my hunch is they were all counting on using the presidency and Putin to mutual benefit so the money would keep pouring in once Trump leaves the White House, if not before. Does that make sense to you?
Harper: It’s certainly possible. It’s certainly possible. You’re raising the right question I think, because one of the challenges of a follow-the-money narrative is determining into whose pockets do you want to go? Because there are a lot of different pockets to choose from, some on the American side, some on the Russian side. And that alone, again, becomes a series of daunting tasks. We can follow Paul Manafort’s money into his pockets, we can follow Mike Flynn’s money into his pockets, we can follow the Trump Organization and see what money flows into their pockets. And that’s just the American side of the equation. What you raise may very well turn out to be true. Probably the difficult part of the Russian side of this is going to be tracing through a lot of this.
Moyers: Is that Mueller’s challenge? Is that Robert Mueller’s task?
Harper: I suspect it is and I suspect he’s well onto it. I don’t know if this is going to turn out to have been relevant or not, but the same lawyer who was in attendance at the June 9 meeting in 2016 with the top Trump campaign people was also representing the defendant in a case that Preet Bharara had brought as US attorney in the southern district of New York that was going to involve a trial and evidence relating to Russian money laundering. And in fact, it was a trial that grew out of, in some ways, the very fraud that Sergei Magnitsky had uncovered. And that case settled two days before it was supposed to go to trial in May of 2017, and not surprisingly, some Democrats in Congress would like to hear some answers from Attorney General Sessions about how that settlement came about.
Moyers: Do you think that Trump’s refusal to disclose his tax returns in 2016, a departure from what presidents for 40 years at least have done, is perhaps tied to the Russian connection, to all of this that we’ve been discussing and people have been reporting?
Harper: Let’s put it this way, it won’t surprise me if that turns out to be true. And the tax returns may not even be the more important pieces of financial evidence relating to all of this. It may well be that what you really need to do is get into the bowels of the documents relating to the various Trump Organization projects and their various partnerships, limited-liability corporations and so forth.
Real estate developers can have very complex structures relating to their deals and you’re not necessarily going to get all that in a tax return. I suspect that one of the things that might be of concern or have been of concern to Trump was that the tax returns could begin to pull the thread on a financial disclosure sweater that could lead to some, let’s just say interesting, questions about who some of the business partners are that he’s had over the many years of his projects in New York and in Florida and elsewhere. We know a little bit about some of them, but I think there’s a reason that goes beyond, “This is private and I don’t want anyone to know about it” for not releasing his tax returns. And I think there may be a reason that goes even beyond greed.
Moyers: Can you say a word about that?
Harper: Well, again, I’m not sure where the evidence will ultimately lead but another powerful motivator besides greed is fear. And it wouldn’t surprise me if Putin knows things about Trump and his business arrangements that the American public does not and it could very well be that the prospect of having the American public learn some of those things is not a pleasant prospect for Trump.
Moyers: Earlier you identified some of the highly qualified, highly respected sources you have used, as all of us have, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post. I mean, it may be the last great newspaper war between The Post and The Times in particular — it’s very invigorating for us journalists. During the life of this timeline, have you listened to the counterarguments? Have you watched Fox or read Breitbart or gone to those sources that are positing a defense of Trump or a refutation or discrediting of what we’ve been talking about?
Harper: Sure. There is some honest reporting, I believe, that comes out of Fox News. But there’s also some deflection, diversion and distraction that comes out of a number of those far-right media outlets. But I pay attention to it.
Moyers: Right. You are a litigator, a trial lawyer, a successful one. You were before you retired. How would you take all of this and frame Trump’s defense if you were his lawyer?
Harper: The first thing I would want to know, and I’m not sure any of his lawyers know this, is tell me what the facts actually are. Because you can’t really frame a defense unless you know where the vulnerabilities are in the facts. And if the facts are going to trip you up, you’re going to get into trouble pretty quickly. Ultimately as a trial lawyer, at least in front of a jury, the only thing you have is your credibility in front of the jury for whatever it is you’re going to ask them to believe the evidence shows.
I guess the most recent case of a lawyer being trumped up, I’m sorry, tripped up [laughter] — maybe trumped up too, maybe that’s a new way to look at this — is the way one of Trump’s lawyers, Jay Sekulow, went all over the news outlets after the story broke about Don Jr.’s statement and said, “Well, the president had nothing to do with that statement.” There are three or four different Sunday talk shows that he appeared on.
Moyers: Oh yes, I saw that.
Harper: And guess what? It turned out to be not true. And of course we’re used to that world, but I think as a lawyer at least, I would be awfully concerned if I had a client lying to me like that. When your answer to the question “How do you know?” is “Because the president told me,” that gets pretty tricky for a lawyer, I think.
Moyers: Did you use timelines like this in your own courtroom cases?
Harper: Yes. And in fact I also created one for the first book that I wrote, which was about my dad and his tangle with Jimmy Hoffa in the late ’50s and early ’60s. And I think that’s sort of a standard trial lawyer approach to the thing. Again, I’m thinking in terms of the jury’s receptivity or a reader’s receptivity to what it is you’re going to expose them to. I think most people in the reception of information think in a linear fashion, so it’s easier to follow if the first words out of your mouth to a jury are, “The story of this case begins” and then you take them through.
That’s as opposed to the way many lawyers think, which is based on issues, so is there obstruction of justice, is there witness tampering, is there something worse? But if you think about the factual presentation as really being driven by a linear narrative, it becomes easier to do two things. No. 1, to keep the facts straight yourself, and then No. 2, if you start with a basic linear narrative, as I did back in early February with 24 entries, you can then sort of drop new things in as you find them. In a case like this, unlike a case that I would have for a jury, the facts are still evolving.
Moyers: Do you find yourself slipping here into your old mode? Do you find yourself, as you work on this timeline, making a case or preparing an argument?
Harper: I’m trying very much not to do that. [laughter] I went through this exercise a little bit — again, going back to my very first book. When you’re writing a book about your father and a challenge that he faces in his life, the struggle there is to try to do everything you can to maintain a sense of objectivity about what you’re doing, because you don’t want to get lost in the world of hyperbole or bias. So I’ve tried very, very hard — I’ll take positions, and I have taken lots of positions in my substantive essays for your site and for others. But when it comes to this timeline, I’ve tried to keep that in what I would call a pristine state.
I’m hopeful that if someone reads through the timeline, they’ll see the effort is really no editorializing at all on my part, simply a straightforward “Here is what happened.” Because ultimately, what is most persuasive to people is what they come to believe on their own, not what someone tells them they should believe. So I’ve tried very hard. I don’t know how successful I’ve been but I know that your team has also been very useful for me in trying to maintain that kind of objectivity in the presentation.
Moyers: Well, it’s been a marvelous partnership, from which I have learned much and for which I’m grateful.
Harper: Thank you, Bill, have a good day.
Moyers: You too. Bye.